First Sunday of Advent: Welcoming the Comings of Christ

our lady of millenium

JER 33:14-16; PS 45: 4-5, 8-9, 10, 14; 1 THES 3:12-4:2; LK 21:25-28, 34-36

Our end is our beginning. The dying of the liturgical year in November culminates with our first Sunday of Advent – and we continue to look to the end of time, preparing for Christ to come in glory as we prepare for Christ’s coming as a baby to renew all things.

As the world puts up Christmas trees and starts singing about Santa Claus, our Gospel has Jesus saying,

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

We recall the classic sermons about the three comings of Christ. Christ came in weakness long ago. He will come in power at the end of time. And he comes to us every day in between.


Ironic: compared to the frightening words of the Gospel, the words from the prophet Jeremiah make us nostalgic for a sweeter, more innocent time. “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and Judah. . . . I will raise up for David a just shoot; he shall do what is right and just in the land. In those days Judah shall be safe and Jerusalem shall dwell secure.”

They looked forward to the coming Messiah, the king who would set everything right. They looked forward to Jesus, all sweetness.

But which coming were they looking forward to? In his first coming, he was swaddled in sweetness – and poverty and nakedness and cold, destined to be rejected and suffer death on a Cross.

In his final coming he will bring terror and destruction, “people will die of fright” – and finally peace will reign.

And in our everyday, he calls to us, stands at the door knocking. He begs to enter in, and we leave him like a homeless man, out in the cold.


Our Epistle is from 1 Thessalonians – one of Paul’s most apocalyptic letters (along with 2 Thessalonians).

The message is simple. We want “to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.” The apocalyptic message is simply that we should be prepared to meet him when he comes, however he comes.

We recall the most terrifying words of Scripture, the conclusion of all Jesus’s preaching, in Matthew 25:

“Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels. . . .

They shall answer, saying, Lord, when did we see you hungry, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister to you? . . . Inasmuch as you did it not unto one of these least you did it not unto me.”

To prepare for his final coming, we are to live every moment as if he is knocking at the door.


But who can  stand when he appeareth? In our Epistle, not only does Paul exhort us that, “as you received from us how you should conduct yourselves to please God . . . what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus” – not only does he teach us with Christ’s words. Better than that, he begins, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another . . . so as to strengthen your heart.” He sends us Christ’s Spirit, the power of his grace, to strengthen our hearts.

Only Christ can prepare us to stand before him.


Our Gospel concludes, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.” St. Paul – and, here, St. Luke, a disciple of St. Paul – has this habit of building up terrible sins, and then sliding in normal things. I’m not a carouser; I’m not drunk –and yet, swallowed up by the anxieties of daily life, it is all the same.

“Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent – and to stand before the Son of Man.”

In Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the first coming, we are reminded to prepare for the final coming by watching for Christ in all his little daily comings. We ask him to come with his grace so that we may welcome him in his little ones and be prepared to stand before him in glory.

When did the anxieties of your daily life keep you from welcoming Christ today?

Thirty-Third Sunday: The Apocalyptic Now

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

DN 12:1-3; PS 16:5, 8, 9-10, 11; HEB 10:11-14, 18; MK 13:24-32

We come now to the end.  Next Sunday will be the last Sunday of the Church year, Christ the King.  This Sunday we read about the end of time.

Our Gospel, it must be said, is somewhat confusing.  Perhaps it is meant to be.  Jesus talks about “after the time of distress.”  He says, “the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling from heaven.”  Then the Son of Man will come “in the clouds with great power and glory.”  It is clear he will be the master of the end of time.  It is not so clear what exactly the end of time will be.

He tells us to “take the fig tree as a parable”: its leaves are a sign of summer.  So too there will be signs that Jesus is coming.  But he concludes “as for that day or hour, nobody knows it” – not even the Son.

He says “all these things will have taken place” “before this generation has passed away.”  But what are “all these things”?  What is “this generation”?  Was Jesus wrong?


A little context helps.  Before our reading, Jesus has already been talking about the end for some twenty verses.  He talks about horrible things that will happen – “but the end is not yet.”  There will be many “false Christs and false prophets.”

Here is one way to read all of this: the Apocalypse is not about a “then” separate from our “now.”  It is not that the world is “stable,” and then at some point something abnormal will happen.

Rather, it is that the world constantly teeters on the edge.  He is coming soon.  All the horrible things that happen – as Friday evening in Paris – are not a break from normal.  They are normal: a world teetering on the edge, and constantly reminding us that Christ alone is the End.

He will come one day.  But every day – both “that generation” and ours – are days of expectation.


As an example of this, consider how our first reading, from Daniel, frames our Psalm.  By “framing” I mean it puts a context “around” the Psalm so that we notice new things.

The Psalm is beautiful, but normal enough.  “And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad; even my body shall rest in safety.”  “O Lord, it is you who are my portion and cup.”

But the reading that precedes it is apocalyptic.  “There is going to be a time of great distress, unparalleled since nations first came into existence.”  Angels will war.  “Michael will stand up, the great prince who mounts guard over your people.”  Those who have learned virtue “will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven . . . as bright as stars for all eternity.”

After reading that, “even my body shall rest in safety” no longer sounds like a sleepy Saturday afternoon, but a promise of protection in a time of chaos far surpassing any terrorist attack.  “God, I take refuge in you” is no longer a sweet pat on the head, but a response to real terror – and a promise of divine intervention.  In the context of Daniel’s apocalypse, “You will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence” changes from a saccharine hope that everything will be just fine to a heroic passage through the gates of hell.

But the best part is that we can – we should – read the Psalm that way now.  The terror is not yet upon us – but God’s protection and his promises are.  The apocalypse reminds us to see our every day on the brink of eternity.


Above all, it reminds us to see our life under God’s protection.  Daniel promises that “all those whose names are found written in the Book” will be protected.  It is not a matter of our awesome strength, but of God’s providence.  We are safe because we have been chosen – because of his action, not ours.  He will teach us – and so “those who have learned will shine brightly” – but our trust is in him, not ourselves.

As we come to the end of the Church year, we come too to the end of Hebrews.  And we see Jesus “forever at the right hand of God; now [now!] he waits until his enemies are made his footstool.”  Our hope is in him.  Our help is in the name of the Lord.  Jesus is the victor of the cosmic battle.

The Greek word “apocalypse,” and its Latin translation “revelation,” both mean that the veil that covers reality has been pulled away.  This week we get a glimpse of what’s really going on – not just at the end of time, but in our apocalyptic now.

How do you remind yourself that heaven is more real than earth?

Vocal Prayer and Verbal Prayer

lauds1When I was first learning about the Catholic Church I was taught about three kinds of prayer: vocal prayer, mental prayer, and contemplative prayer.  Whether or not you have learned these particular names, I think they name ideas that most Catholics today have about prayer.  And I think those ideas are very wrong.

I hope I don’t take too strong a stance here, but I’ll try to explain.


Vocal prayer is prayer with your voice.  Mental prayer is prayer with your mind.  Contemplative prayer is some sort of mystical prayer of union.  Those definitions I think are correct.

What is incorrect is that we tend to think of these as things we do at different times.

So someone who prays the Liturgy of the Hours might think that saying those words is vocal prayer.  But then he needs to set aside some time for mental prayer, by which he means some sort of spiritual exercise, probably using the imagination.  And then if he’s really serious, he’ll set aside some more time for contemplation.  I was taught about “the prayer of silence,” where you just sit and do nothing, and that’s contemplation.

Someone who prays the rosary might consider all the Hail Mary’s as vocal prayer, but then you have to add mental prayer.  The mental prayer might mean that before you say the Hail Mary’s, you spend some time imagining the mysteries.  It might also mean that while your mouth says the Hail Mary’s, your mind does a separate kind of prayer, imagining the mysteries while ignoring what the mouth is saying.  And then if you’re really spiritual, maybe when the rosary is over you can just be silent and “contemplate.”


Many serious Catholics today think this is how the life of prayer works.  I think they are missing the Catholic tradition’s deepest insights about prayer.

To the contrary, I think if you read the doctors of the Church and understand the traditional ways of prayer, these three things are supposed to happen at the same time.  St. Benedict’s adage is, “let your mind be in harmony with your voice.”  Mental prayer means that as you say your vocal prayers – the Liturgy of the Hours, the rosary, the Our Father, the Mass, whatever – you actually think about what you’re saying.  Not about something else, but about what you’re saying.

If you read traditional masters of prayer – for example, I’ve been reading St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of Avila, who are doctors of the Church because of their teaching on prayer – when they say that mental prayer is necessary, they don’t mean, “after you say your vocal prayers, set aside time to do something else.”  What they mean, I think, is “pay attention to the words you’re saying.”

The words are there for a reason.  We don’t say all those Hail Mary’s, or all the prayers of the Mass, or the Psalms, so that we can ignore them.

I call this “verbal prayer.”  Words are something we say with our voice – and understand with our mind.  Mooing or screaming are “vocal” activities that are not words – but the Church teaches us to pray with words, which engage our mind.  Groaning is not the traditional Catholic way to pray.

Contemplation, it seems, is something that happens now and then while we are doing verbal prayer.  Now and then we catch glimpses, we feel stabs of love.  That’s something that happens while we are saying our vocal prayers with our minds attuned to our voices.


Teresa of Avila is insistent that contemplation is always a gift, “infused” not “acquired.”  What she means, I think, is that it is foolish to set aside time for contemplation.  Contemplation is something divine that happens while we are doing human kinds of prayer – verbal prayer.

She insists that we focus on the humanity of Christ.  I think what she means – please, read her at greater length – is that we have to pray in human ways.  Humans use words.  The Psalms are the divine made human.  The Gospels are the divine made human.  Jesus is the divine made human.

When we separate contemplation from vocal and mental prayer, we separate the divine from the human.  The whole point of Jesus – and of the Bible and the sacraments – is that we can come to God through human things.  Do not separate the humanity from the divinity!

And she insists that she never prays without a book.  That’s Teresa – but it’s even more in the rest of the tradition.  Catholic prayer is verbal prayer.


Finally, prayer is not merely an act of will.  The verbal prayer I am describing passes through our understanding: we catch contemplative glimpses when we understand the words that we say.

To make prayer into merely an act of will is to separate our intellect from our will.  Christ does not carve up the human person.  Our will and intellect are engaged together.  We pray with our will by also praying with our intellect – and vice versa.

And to make prayer into merely an act of will is to separate humanity from divinity.  At its root – historically, philosophically, and theologically – the idea that prayer is merely effort is really the idea that we encounter God by leaving our humanity behind, by leaving our understanding and our affections and just pushing.  That might sound very heroic, but it is not the Catholic tradition.  Human prayer – the prayer the saints describe – is humble; we attain God through the humanity of Christ, we do not leap into the heavens.


The Catholic tradition does lectio divina: reading and understanding and so contemplating.  The Catholic tradition does liturgy: the most sublime prayer is prayer using words – words that we can understand.  It is valuable – don’t get me wrong – to set aside time for silence and for various spiritual exercises.  But these are not the highest forms of prayer – they are only preparations to pray better with words.

Where do words fit in your prayer life?